A while back, at a pre-opening event at the new Westwood, California site for the popular and ever expanding Vegan restaurant Native Foods Cafe , I shared a table with a very intelligent, very attractive, outgoing young woman, a Rutgers University graduate and budding entrepreneur who had taken part in the recent Fur Free West Hollywood (WeHo) campaign. She was not Vegan, nor even vegetarian but something of a “flexitarian.” Still, she considered herself a compassionate person concerned about animals and, well, perhaps she might go vegetarian one day. She enjoyed vegan food, but when it came to socializing with Vegans, there was a problem. “It just seems to me,” she opined, “that most of the Vegans I meet, ALL they want to talk about is being Vegan. I mean, can’t they find something else to talk about? After all, it’s just a diet!”
Oh, dear. There are several assumptions in her statement which I and many of my Vegan brethren (and sistren) have heard in one form or another from representatives of the non-Vegan general population (NVGP):
1) Veganism is primarily about making food choices 2) Those choices are a personal preference 3) Not everyone has an interest in your personal preference 4) You are trying to force your preference on me. Now, if we were talking about just food, this would certainly be a different issue. A love of asparagus, for instance. An obsession with heirloom tomatoes. Or, perhaps, raw food versus cooked food. If this were, indeed, merely about personal preference – even if that preference might personally benefit others – then one would be justified in saying, “That’s fine for you, but not for me.”
But, of course, it is not just about personal preference. We are not talking about merely the consumption of plant-based foods. We are not talking about a completely (no lacto, no ovo) vegetarian diet. There are, indeed, those folks who have adopted such a diet because of health concerns or for other reasons related to their own well-being. But I do not think they should be called Vegans. Yes, it is great that they have adopted a diet that is not rooted in animal suffering, that does not support the bloody corporations which profit from the torture and slaughter of innocent beings. But let’s be clear about something. “Being Vegan” – this implies a state of existence that informs who we are in a very essential way, a state of existence which, I believe, is informed by ethical concerns rather than self interest . And it extends its manifestations to include what we wear, what entertainment choices we make, what medical research we support, what businesses we patronize. It influences our whole world view. Yes, people come to Veganism for a variety of reasons (which The Veg Monologues hopes to convey) – ethical, health, environmental – but ultimately it is a moral imperative which commands our adherence to the principles of Veganism.
Let’s be clear about something. “Being Vegan” implies a state of existence that informs who we are in a very essential way, a state of existence which, I believe, is informed by ethical concerns rather than self interest.
Let’s explore for a bit this concept of the “moral imperative” and how it applies to Veganism. The eighteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant is well-known for his discussion of the categorical imperative, that which one always has a duty to do, regardless of the consequences of doing it. In the present day, here is what philosopher and renowned Animal Rights Advocate, Tom Regan, has to say about the ethical question of turning animals into food, from his book Empty Cages: Facing the Challenge of Animal Rights:
“We ought to stop eating the bodies of animals (“meat”), just as we ought to stop eating “animal products,” such as milk, cheese, and eggs. Commercial animal agriculture is not possible without the violation of the rights of farmed animals, including violation of their right to life. More fundamentally, commercial animal agriculture violates the right of animals to be treated with respect. We are never justified in injuring the bodies, limiting the freedom, or taking the lives of animals because human beings will benefit, even assuming that we do.”
Notice that Regan writes, “ought.” This implies an obligation or duty. He takes the deontological philosophical view . Deontology is concerned with duties and rights. Veganism, then is, or ought to be, as much about animal rights as it is about food. Veganism recognizes that it is not justifiable to choose to contribute to the violation of the rights of farmed animals even if people have a craving for animal flesh or animal secretions. Veganism makes it imperative that we eat like we give a damn.
Let’s return, however, to my convivial table mate at Native Foods. Let us assume she had said something like, “I recognize the moral imperative inherent in Veganism. But still, must that dominate the conversation? Don’t Vegans have anything else to talk about?” Of course, my first response would be to ask, if you do, indeed, recognize the moral imperative inherent in Veganism, why in the world are you still eating animals and animal products? But I would also feel that, perhaps, she had made a valid point. Mind you, I would not agree that ALL Vegans only talk about Veganism. I am happy that I have Vegan friends who have interests and passions, as do I, outside of Veganism (and vegan dining)– hiking, music, books, theater, movies, art, dancing, to name a few.
I don’t doubt, though, that she has met a number of Vegans who have used Veganism as a sort of conversational cudgel. I don’t doubt, either, that I have wielded that cudgel more than once throughout my twenty plus years being a Vegan. Would the same critique apply if the conversation were dominated by talk of the human rights imperative of supporting the Palestinian people? Or the environmental imperative of stopping global warming (with links, of course, to modern animal agriculture). Or . . . the spiritual imperative of accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?
“Aha!” I can hear some of the NVGP exclaim, quite satisfied to have this last analogy broach the as yet unspoken subject. “You Vegans are all about spreading the gospel of Veganism, all about evangelizing us omnivores. You don’t converse . . . you try to convert!”
Do we Vegan advocates want more and more of the NVGP to become Vegan — or at least set foot on the path to Veganism? Damn right we do! Do we tend to preach? Perhaps. But whereas a Christian evangelist hopes for a transformation based on faith, we ask that people make a moral choice based on fact. And the fact is that over 9 billion birds and mammals are slaughtered for food each year in the United States. Before they are killed, often not quickly, not cleanly, they are subjected to deprivations and abuse in factory farms that would be considered criminal if done to other, non-farmed animals.
Even supposedly “humanely” slaughtered animals (an absurd contradiction in terms!) have their lives cut short, not because humans need animal flesh to survive (as we now know, through research such as The China Study , a diet centered on animal flesh and animal products is deleterious to human health) — no, these animals, each and every one a subject-of-a-life as Tom Regan puts it, are killed to satisfy a taste. Or, in the case of laying hens and dairy cows, they are slaughtered once their brutalized bodies can no longer produce any more eggs or any more milk.
Do we Vegan advocates want more and more of the non-Vegan general population to become Vegan — or at least set foot on the path to Veganism? Damn right we do!
Vegans know all too well the reasons for becoming Vegan. We understand the importance of the choice we have made. Our eyes are open to the horrible violation of rights inherent in the nightmarish world of factory farms, where living beings are treated as things, mere commodities. We know that we can’t look away. At some point we were compelled to look at our own complicity in helping to perpetuate the suffering — even those of us, such as myself, who were many years vegetarian — and we now realize we have a duty. We understood the imperative of making changes in our own lives so as to effect a change in the lives of farmed animals. We knew then and we know now how much it matters.
I agree with Australian philanthropist Philip Wollen that Animal Rights — and by extension, Veganisn–is “the greatest Social Justice issue since the abolition of slavery.” I became a Vegan advocate not because I wanted to force my “preference” on others, but because so much is at stake, because so many lives hang in the balance. Because justice for farmed animals is never going to be a reality until people WAKE UP and look at what they are doing — out of habit, out of their own preference– to perpetuate the injustice. That is what I bring to the table.
What are some other reasons that someone might go on and on about being Vegan? Well, of course, it could be the zeal of the convert, or perhaps a feeling of wanting to share this new, profound information which must surely have an immediate and positive effect on the listener — how could it not? It might also be that many of us Vegans feel terribly marginalized by the NVGP; we are always enthusiastic over the prospect of a potential new member of the club and we tend to overdo the enthusiasm.
And yet, there are reasons for having “something else” to talk about. For one, if we are truly trying to get others to listen to us, we don’t want them to tune us out. And the surest way of getting them to tune us out is to dominate the conversation, to force others to listen to something they are not ready to hear.
But there is another reason. Veganism ought to be seen in a global context, and not just because switching from animal agriculture and an animal protein centered diet to a plant-based food source–for the lives of animals, for the environment (despite what some people will have you believe. Click here for some excellent fact checking on this) , for people’s health — will bring about profound positive change worldwide. Veganism and animal rights need to be seen as existing in the larger, ever changing world; as part of the global mix of ideas about peace, social justice, health, compassion, oppression, liberation, freedom and so much more.
And we Vegans ought to be a part of that world. We need to be making human connections, not just with other Vegans but with the non-Vegan general public. We need to be a part of the world of Hope and Joy, Loss and Pain; of making mistakes and of making amends that all human beings are a part of.
Yes, it is imperative that we not shy away from talking about being Vegan, that we be unapologetic advocates for the animals. But it is also imperative that we accept the fact that we are imperfect human beings in a world of imperfect human beings, in order to bring ourselves to the table, to join in the conversation. And add our Vegan voices to the mix.
[for an excellent exploration of the same topic– Veganism as social obligation, not a preference– see my pal Kara’s post here — we cover some of the same territory but through a different lens]
Several re-readings of this and multiple mullings-over have convinced me that I did not do my duty in forcefully and unequivocally stating the case for Veganism as a moral imperative. I see now that my words, particularly at the end, could be misconstrued as excusing as merely “imperfect human beings” those who would disregard or ignore the imperative and continue to act in a way that perpetuates animal suffering. I certainly did not mean it to come across that way. What I should have said is that we Vegans/Animal Rights Advocates should recognize that there are alliances to be made with others who are concerned about social injustice, oppression, liberation, etc. within a human paradigm. As the chant goes: “One struggle, one fight, human freedom, animal rights!” It is all of one, multi-faceted piece.
I also believe that we should not be smug in our Veganism, we should not be imbued with a vanity that causes us to forget that we are not perfect, that we are fallible. A self-righteous attitude doesn’t help the animals and it only alienates those people we are trying to influence. BUT, I want to reiterate that this doesn’t in any way mean that we do not have morality on our side; it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strongly and unapologetically TELL THE TRUTH. And people who proclaim to be compassionate and ethical and who are not ignorant of the facts but discount or ignore the moral imperative of Veganism should be confronted with their inconsistency. Yes, we should take the Matrix-like veil of Carnism into account but we also shouldn’t be afraid of urging others to take the red pill.